What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Jul 7, 2021 | Home Health, Problem Solvers

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Knowing how to remain active and independent is important, especially if you have suffered an accident or injury. What’s more, understanding the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy will tell you how best to accomplish this. Though the concepts are frequently conflated, they are not identical. When patients can accomplish daily tasks on their own, they are independent. When they can move without pain or injury, they are active. Doctors normally recommend occupational and physical therapy in order to reverse complications from an accident or illness. Deciding which is the proper approach depends on the extent of the patient’s motor skills. 

Gross Motor Skills vs. Fine Motor Skills

Motor skills form as we explore the world during the early stages of childhood. They give us the ability to move our muscles in order to perform specific actions and, at their most basic, can be divided into two categories.  

  1. Gross Motor Skills. Allow us to carry out full body movements, such as walking, lifting, and sitting upright. They are crucial for balance and coordination as well. Even though they involve muscles throughout the body, gross motor skills rely primarily on the strength of our legs, back, and midsection.   
  2. Fine Motor Skills. Allow us to make small movements with our hands, wrists, and fingers. Fine motor skills are crucial for self-care. We rely on them for the activities of daily living, such as eating, dressing, and brushing our teeth.  

Unfortunately, whether due to age, injury, or illness, motor skills can degrade over time. When this happens, physical and occupational therapists step in to help re-build them.   

What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

Exploring the Difference Between Physical Therapy & Occupational Therapy

What’s most important about the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is where they place their focus. Physical therapists concentrate on the cause of the infirmity, while occupational therapists concentrate on complications arising from it.  

Physical Therapy

The goal of physical therapy is to restore mobility, ease pain, and prevent injury. To that end, therapists use a series of controlled exercises that improve:  

  • Strength. Strong muscles keep you balanced while walking, standing, reaching, or picking up heavy objects. Besides preventing fatigue and helping you maintain proper posture, they also support joints, bones, and cartilage. 
  • Range of Motion. Being able to fully extend your joints provides greater control over movement. Actions are more precise and powerful, ensuring you can react quickly and perform tasks effectively.  
  • Flexibility. Stiff joints and tight muscles impede motion. They also place greater stress on the arms, legs, and back, making them vulnerable to aches, pains, and tears. Posture suffers as well, making it hard to correct imbalances and remain properly aligned while performing tasks.  
  • Coordination. Training muscles to work together ensures smooth and easy movement. Moreover, with each part of the body acting together, you can fully exert yourself without placing an excessive burden on joints or limbs.  
  • Endurance. Improving stamina makes it easier to carry out everyday tasks. It also prevents muscles from becoming overloaded, which can leave you open to injury.  

Physical therapy is generally offered in a clinic or through a home health agency. Clinics offer a more intense recovery, but home health care agencies allow patients to build skills in a more practical environment.   

Benefits of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can be demanding, especially for someone in recovery. But despite this, it often offers a safer, more effective route to health and happiness. In certain cases, it can resolve debilitating health problems without surgery or medication. Besides better mobility, patients who undergo physical therapy also experience:   

  • Reduced Pain. Weak muscles place a greater strain on bones and cartilage, which generally exacerbates acute and chronic pain. Strengthening muscles with the help of a therapist provides greater cushioning for your joints and reduces pressure on the body.  
  • Fewer Injuries. Poor fitness often leads to injury. Without the strength, flexibility, and coordination to catch themselves, older patients are especially likely to suffer a fall or fracture. Physical therapy helps identify risk factors that cause imbalances and corrects them through training.  
  • Faster Recovery. Contrary to popular belief, rest is not the best way to recover from injury. Instead, doctors recommend gentle exercise. It encourages the body to heal and returns patients to full health in less time and with fewer complications.  
  • Greater Mobility. Patients suffering pain typically avoid activity. This leads to a vicious cycle where joints, muscles, and tendons – which require motion to remain healthy – start to degrade, leading to even more pain. Physical therapy offers a way out, with targeted exercises that rehabilitate sore joints.  
  • Better Health. Besides assisting people in recovery, physical therapy can also help manage long-term health problems, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and Parkinson’s. Though they may not be able to reverse these conditions, they can slow their progress and mitigate their worst effects.   

Physical therapists work with patients one-on-one. They create individual exercise regimes that consider the patient’s abilities, health, and lifestyle. Each plan is geared toward the patient’s specific weaknesses, designed to get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.  

What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy assists people who cannot participate in the activities of daily life (i.e., occupations) because of injury, illness, or disability. Unlike physical therapy, occupational therapy takes an indirect approach to health problems. Rather than seeking a cure, it helps people adapt by strengthening three central skills.  

  1. Translation. The ability to move objects from your palm to your fingers and then back again with only one hand.  
  2. Shift. Moving objects between fingers.  
  3. Rotation. The ability to roll objects between the thumb and forefinger or turn them over in the hand.   

Many of the exercises they use are surprisingly ordinary, reflecting how often we rely on these skills in daily life. For example:  

  • Folding Origami. Improves dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Practicing this activity helps patients open caps on household items.  
  • Stringing Beads. Works small finger muscles used to grip pencils by forcing patients to shift objects from their palm to their fingers, as well as rotate them into position.   
  • Ball Toss. Teaches patients to time movements with their eyes and hands. It also supports range of motion and the ability to grip and hold objects.  
  • Balling Paper. A good exercise that encourages isolated finger movements and grip strength. The patient crumples paper into a ball and then spreads it flat with one hand.   
  • Peg Board. Inserting pegs into holes requires patients to grasp, manipulate, and control the path of objects with their palm and fingers.   

Despite the difference in focus between occupational therapy and physical therapy, the strength of fine motor skills depends on the strength of gross motor skills. Therefore, besides working on the skills above, occupational therapists also improve their patients’ strength, balance, and coordination using weights, stretches, and resistance bands. In some cases, they ask patients to practice everyday tasks with weights attached to their wrists and ankles. 

Who Benefits from Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy improves the lives of patients suffering from physical and mental impairments. Through exercise and lifestyle changes, therapists teach patients how to overcome limitations imposed by:  

  • Amputations  
  • Arthritis  
  • Brain Injury  
  • Burns  
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome  
  • Cerebral Palsy  
  • Dementia  
  • Down Syndrome   
  • Dupuytren’s Disease  
  • Multiple Sclerosis  
  • Spine Injuries  
  • Stroke  
  • Tendonitis  

Regardless of their affliction, treatments are always tailored to the individual – how well they can move and what information their brain can process. Besides exercise, therapists might suggest new strategies for daily living, such as altering the patient’s routine or breaking chores up into smaller tasks. Therapists might also show patients how to use prosthetic devices or install safety equipment in their home. Or they may teach patients how to soothe symptoms with splinting, massage, or compression garments.  

Regardless of which techniques are employed, the goal of occupational therapy is always the same – help patients care for themselves so they can once again participate in meaningful activities.   

What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

The difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is what’s so effective about them. Each one offers a unique approach that provides a wider range of solutions to patients looking to remain active and independent.  

At Parentis Health, physical and occupational therapists work together to improve quality of life. Whether you are in pain, struggling to walk, or need help with daily tasks, we find the therapy that is right for you.  

Brooke McFerren is a Physical Therapist Assistant who works with older adults in Southern California. Through her personal approach to therapy, she has helped countless seniors remain strong, active, and independent during their advancing years.    

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